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State v. O'Neill

Supreme Court of Vermont

March 29, 2019

State of Vermont
Robin O'Neill

          Supreme Court On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Criminal Division December Term, 2018 Katherine A. Hayes, J.

          David Tartter, Deputy State's Attorney, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Rebecca Turner, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ., and Howard, Supr. J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. Defendant Robin O'Neill appeals from a jury conviction for aggravated murder of her ex-fiancé and his son. She argues that the evidence was insufficient to support the conviction; that her statements to police should have been suppressed because they were the product of custodial interrogation without an attorney after she invoked her right to one; and that those statements should have been suppressed because the police coerced her into making them, depriving her of due process. We hold that the evidence sufficiently and fairly supports the conviction; and that the statements defendant seeks to suppress were not made in response to police interrogation, and were not the product of police coercion, and thus were properly admitted. Accordingly, we affirm.

         ¶ 2. The evidence at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, reflected the following. Defendant and Steven Lott began a relationship in early 2014. She subsequently moved into his house, and they got engaged that July.

         ¶ 3. In September 2014, Steven's neighbor and friend, who lived part-time in California, returned to Vermont. Steven began spending a lot of time at her house, which upset defendant. Throughout that fall, defendant and Steven argued about their relationship and about Steven's relationship with neighbor. Defendant considered moving out of the house.

         ¶ 4. That October, defendant threatened and physically hurt Steven, and when Steven would visit neighbor, defendant would at times follow him. Defendant wrote in her diary on October 27, "I got pretty drunk. S down to [neighbor's]. I knocked on dr; not let in. Listened window - basement. S said I threatened to kill him." Defendant's diary reflected that on October 25 she discussed with Steven that she "had hit him on [the] head with firewood." Neighbor testified that around late October, Steven came to her house and seemed unfocused and distressed; she thought at the time he might have a head injury. After neighbor touched Steven's head to see if he was injured, she heard tapping on the storm door, and when they called out to ask who it was, they heard a female voice speak but could not make out the words. Neighbor testified that Steven opened the door, then quickly slammed it. Neighbor heard a car drive away. Around that time, defendant told one of Steven's friends that she had gone down to neighbor's house and stood under a window, listening to Steven and neighbor talking. Defendant said she heard neighbor tell Steven that he needed "to get rid of her."

         ¶ 5. In early November, defendant told her friend Mike that her engagement with Steven was off.

         ¶ 6. In the late afternoon of Saturday, November 15, Steven went to neighbor's house to fix her vacuum and remained there for several hours. While he was there, their friend Rob dropped by neighbor's house and visited. Rob testified that while he was there, he saw defendant drive past the house six times.

         ¶ 7. Sometime that same Saturday, Steven hit defendant, causing bruises to her shoulder, legs, arm, head, and buttocks. Late that night, Steven went to neighbor's house. Neighbor and her daughter testified that he appeared disheveled and scared. He said he had been in bed arguing with defendant when she rolled over and reached for a drawer in her bedside table. He leapt up, grabbed clothes, and fled. Neighbor's daughter asked what was in the bedside table, and Steven replied, "I don't know, and I didn't want to find out."

         ¶ 8. On Sunday, November 16, witnesses who were driving by neighbor's house saw defendant walking around behind the house, then saw Steven drive quickly up to it. Around that time, Steven told defendant he wanted her out of the house.

         ¶ 9. On Tuesday, November 18, defendant told a number of people that Steven had hit her. In response, her coworker urged her to report it. Defendant responded that she wasn't "going to do that, because it was never going to happen again." Defendant then angrily told her coworker about Steven's sexual failings and the resulting impact on their relationship. Later, when defendant told an acquaintance about the assault, she also told the acquaintance that Steven had said he should have married neighbor. Defendant also told the acquaintance that she planned to move out of the house.

         ¶ 10. In the afternoon of Tuesday, November 18, defendant began to drink. When Steven's friend Morgan came over in the late afternoon, he found Steven, his son Jamis, and defendant sitting and talking in the kitchen area. Morgan testified that defendant told him she was not with Steven anymore, tried to kiss him, and asked if he wanted to have sex. He declined, and defendant went upstairs. Morgan said it sounded like she started breaking things. He did not see any guns in the kitchen area, although this was not surprising as he knew that Steven kept his guns upstairs.

         ¶ 11. At around 7:00 or 7:30 that evening, neighbor received three calls. Each time, the caller said nothing and hung up. Caller ID showed that one of the calls was from Steven's house; the other two numbers were blocked.

         ¶ 12. At 7:54, defendant called an acquaintance, Kristina, but did not say anything, then hung up. Kristina called back and someone picked up the phone but did not speak.

         ¶ 13. At 8:01, defendant called her sister and told her that Steven had hit her, and that she might be going to stay at a friend's house. She sounded stressed, rushed, and a little embarrassed, but not intoxicated. While they were speaking, defendant got another call, so her sister hung up and waited.

         ¶ 14. The other caller was Kristina. Kristina asked if Steven was there. Defendant laughed and said no. They had a confused conversation, then defendant said she was on the phone with her sister and hung up. At 8:26, defendant called Kristina again; they had another brief and confused conversation in which defendant apologized for not being able to speak earlier because her sister was on the line. They hung up, and then at 8:38 defendant called back again and they had the exact same conversation.

         ¶ 15. At 8:48, defendant called her friend Mike. She asked him to take her dog, and when he asked what the problem was, she said, "I just shot Steve and Jamis." She went on, "I did it, I really did it. I just shot Steve and Jamis dead." Mike asked where they were, and she said, "Steve's by my feet in a pool of blood and Jamis is under the table in his own pool of blood." Mike testified that defendant sounded as though she had been drinking. When they hung up, he called the police.

         ¶ 16. Defendant's sister called her back at 8:58. Defendant picked up and said, "I shot them, I think they're dead, there's blood, there's so much blood. And I don't know how I managed." Her sister asked her why she did it, and defendant said in a sad, confused voice, "I don't know." At that point, she heard police and the call ended.

         ¶ 17. When police arrived on the scene, they called defendant out of the house. She came out, ...

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